Monday, May 12, 2008

More Sai on "Soo"

Following on from last week's Sai Yoichi interview, this time I've translated an earlier one from the June 2007 issue of venerable monthly magazine Bungei Shunju (thanks Aceface). Again, Sai is able to be so candid about the shortcomings of his "Soo" colleagues because of his status (he also chairs the Director's Guild of Japan's board of directors) and the fact that his livelihood isn't dependent on the South Korean film industry, but as outspoken as he is I doubt he could be so scathingly specific if he was writing about "Quill" or "Kamui Gaiden".

South Korean film shoot journal

"The South Korean film industry is becoming too predictable, and we want you to breathe new air into it. We're certain that the hardboiled style of Sai Yoichi will become a new genre in South Korean film... The title is 'Double Casting' (it was later renamed "Soo")."

That was the way the letter began, and it captured my imagination. It was like a love note from the South Korean film world. As someone who had been keeping an eye on their successful run in the Asian market and popularity boom in Japan, I was left with no choice but to accept such a strong invitation, and I didn't hesitate.

Twin brothers torn apart after a youthful theft are finally reunited several years later, but in that instant the younger brother is gunned down before his older brother's eyes. The younger brother had escaped from a crime syndicate to become a police officer, and the older brother worked as an assassin to earn money to track down his sibling... It was overwhelmingly nihilistic. Hmm, kind of Hong Kong noir-ish, but as Sai-style pop action set in modern day Seoul it could be interesting, so it made sense to me.

When I was in Seoul on some other business, I met with the producers. A trendy gent sporting frameless specs and a Yves saint Laurent dress shirt, and a serious-looking intellectual type in a denim jacket and a polo shirt. Both were professional elites: Mr. Dress Shirt had worked for KBS (the South Korean equivalent of NHK), and Mr. Polo Shirt had handled marketing for "My Sassy Girl". They were in their mid-30s and the epitome of the so-called "386 generation": born in the sixties, participants in the democracy movement of the eighties, and now in the prime of their careers in their thirties. At this point I began to worry a little. These two spoke logically, and they came across as decent types. Still, there was an air to them that suggested they didn't know what making a film entailed.

The pay was almost twice what I'd get in Japan, and the completion bonus was a 10% cut of the box office revenue. I conveniently interpreted this business-like rationality as the source of South Korean films' prosperity, and my anxiety was assuaged.

However, the script that arrived turned what should have been a stylish hardboiled story into a sandwich of an almost abnormal brotherly love story and a revenge saga, brimming with South Korean-style sentimentality.

I immediately complained to the producers in Seoul that such stereotypes were unacceptable. The response was amusing. They said they had already brought in another writer on the sly. On top of that, another writer ("B") had joined in before I knew it, and I was told that they were collaborating on the screenplay. So, did that mean the secret writer was "C"? Things were becoming confusing.

Complaining wouldn't have gotten me anywhere. I met writers A and B who had done the first draft in Seoul. Both seemed like affable adults. They nodded profusely in agreement with my objective as the director. They even apologised for misinterpreting my intentions. There was nothing else I could do, so I began casting while waiting for their revisions at the hotel. I heard that South Korean stars were all aware of the project and wanted to act in it, and I yelped in delight.

However, I realised later that this was only wishful thinking on the part of the producers and investors (major film industry players). The only tangible aspect of it was the schedule that revolved around dining out with the presidents of the stars' talent agencies. Well, I'd been prepared for a certain amount of wining, dining and currying favour, but I grew tired of it. To cut a long story short, it was just binge drinking for the showbiz mafia and their sales gimmick from Japan.

Second and third drafts of the script were completed, but neither had fixed the problems. Finally, secret weapon writer C presented their version. However, it was a total plagiarism of Tarantino's "Kill Bill". I couldn't take any more. I announced I was dropping out. The producers fell into a panic, but my resolve was firm.

Then, as if the logical thinkers I'd known until then had disappeared somewhere, they came to me pleading with tears in their eyes to take pity on them. The investors had put their money in based on my participation, and in the case that the director or lead actor pulled out, all funds would have to be returned to them in full, they said. It was like a prostitute asking for money in advance. I was stuck. I pictured the faces of the crew and Ji Jin-hee ("Jewel in the Palace"), who had agreed to take the lead role despite being aware of the turmoil.

Now it had come to this, I couldn't pull out. As the sole alien I had ambitions to 'confront the South Korean film world head on', but I cast them aside.

I rewrote the screenplay myself. No, I virtually wrote it from scratch. In the end, I spend a year and three months based in Seoul. On the day the shoot wrapped, I thought I'd experience some special kind of emotion, but I was surprised at how little I felt.

As I'd expected, "Soo" was a commercial flop when it opened in March. The accepted logic is that the South Korean film bubble has burst, but now I consider it an honour for this little film of mine to be described as one of its flashy failures.


  1. [...] Ryuganji has translated another interesting piece from Sai Yoichi, turns out he wrote an even more scathing piece about the making of Soo before the interview that [...]

  2. a enjoyable read again, ryuganji! (if only there were enough drama for a weekly series, courtesy of your kindly efforts:-))
    since we aren't getting the steady stream of wowzers out of korea as just a few years ago, it's tempting to read sai's experience as representative of the whole industry. there might be much more to their whole structural problem, business culture of the industry. i wonder if sai was doubly disadvantaged due to language barrier (does he know basic korean?), & as a gun-for-hire outsider who could benefit from a more powerful insider connection to help him leverage all the backroom deals and meddling. surely this exists in all business cultures regardless of industry.

    " now I consider it an honour for this little film of mine to be described as one of its flashy failures."

    ouch! very classy there:D

  3. And check this month''s issue of BS.
    There's a piece from the critic Tsubouchi Yuzo(The author of "Yasukuni")writing about the film "YASUKUNI".

  4. Behind the cover snap of Bungei Shunju you have a spread (from Eiga Hi-Ho?) about the yasukuni controversy.

    Now, Japan Focus has posted a discussion between Sai and Li:

    The 1997 symposium comes up again -- Aceface alert!

  5. I've already read that Jason.
    Li is mentioning the 1997 symposium at least in five different occasions.Monthly "RONZA "interview is just one of them.(This month's issue of RONZA has special feature on "YASUKUNI" controversy titled ?? ????????????.)

    Conspiracy theosrist in me was wondering why Li,who is now in China "Since his father is ill",won't even take a single cellular call nor an e-mail for commentary on the triumph on May 3.Any words from him would be an instaant scoop for any Japanese journalist.

    However according to RECORD CHINA site says.


    As I trust this, Li is now in China for "security reasons",and not for the sick dad.

    While I don't deny the possibility of some Japanese right wing nutjob trying to harm him,I doubt anyone would actually try doing so,since there are no case of sabotage nor threats in theaters screening "YASUKUNI"in the past 9 days.
    He could also condemn the right wings and use his current situation of semi-exiled status to attract more sympathy from Japanese public and publicity for the film.Yet he did neither.

    Considering his brief silence on the issue to J-media,I imagine that Li is now following advise and potential pressure from Chinese authority to remain so.

    The last thing authority in Beijing wanted in the past few weeks was the Yasukuni issue backfires and ruin the Hu JIntao's five day visit to Japan atarted from May 6.
    But now Hu's gone back to China and Chinese foreign minister had made the statement that the Japan tour "Mission Accomplished",we will probably hear lots from Li in J-media within a few days.

  6. Ed, I agree it's tempting to take Sai's observations as representative, but in the end I guess it's only one guy's opinion. I wonder if "Soo"'s producers talked shit about him in the South Korean press? What I really want to read about is Shiota Akihiko's perspective on making "Dororo" in New Zealand, which from what I've heard was just as turbulent...

    Thanks for the link Jason. I've also posted it below.

    Sorry about all the question marks Aceface - I upgraded Wordpress in the weekend and it made some unintended formatting changes. I think I've fixed the problem, but it looks like it mangled the Japanese text in your comment permanently.

  7. It was meant be like this.

    This month’s issue of RONZA has special feature on “YASUKUNI” controversy titled
    特集 映画「靖国」騒動への疑問)
    However according to RECORD CHINA site says.


  8. Returning to Sai's comments

    Yeah,I think his words don't do justice on Korean cinema.Ofcourse the fact is Sai is still a citizen of Republic of Korea,and not a Japanese citizen makes him not just the don of Japanese film world,but also "Our man in Tokyo"status,thus makes him a unique marginalized position of insider/outsider views.
    And I'd imagine he didn't like those Hallyu boom in the last few years since the purchase price went skyrocketed and Koreans were seen as pretty arrogant from the many of the Japanese industry,which made Sai's comment on the Korean industry more negative.

    But still,is Korean cinema that bad recently?I've read Grady Hendrix wrote the same theme over his blog,and Korean media do think that it is now the winter time for the industry,but still they make better and more ambitious films than Japanese.(I liked "Dirty Carnival"a lot)
    Same thing can be said with the comaprison to the scenes in Greater China.I'm all fed up with theses wire-work Chinese epic flicks now.

  9. On the KJ mailing list, Junkerman reports that he asked Li about the symposium and again Li said it was indeed 1997 because it was specifically held on the 60th anniversary -- he's apparently checking images taken at the time (photos or video I don't know) to confirm.

    Is there any possibility whatsoever Kudan Kaikan told you there wasn't an event when there in fact was?

  10. I"s there any possibility whatsoever Kudan Kaikan told you there wasn’t an event when there in fact was?"

    I thought about that,although the chances are very small,especially I gave them my real name and profession.If they lied to me,they would be in trouble.

    I asked them about any gathering with the word Nanjing attached to it,I've also asked them about screening of the wartime film "Nanking".They've checked Cavernous hall,where screening facility exists,
    And the answer was "There is no meeting held at Cavernous Hall with the word "Nanjing" attached in year 1997."

    Nonerheless, I looked for back-up sources.

    There is a man named Tawara Yoshihumi俵義文 who organize the NPO called"Children and Textbook Net 21子どもと教科書ネット21".
    He is a primal figure of protesting against the circulation of Tsukuru-kai textbooks frequent commenter on the issue to liberal media.He has his own personal homepages with the very detailed list of revisionist historical symposium held acrross the country from 1997 to 2000.
    And as I see the list,there is no Nanjing related event held in Kudan Kaikan in the year 1997.

    Ofcourse,there is a mathematical possibility that neither me and Tawara had missed this particular event that Li had attended,but this was held in Kudan Kaikan,right? Li said in the interview that symposium was"an open, public meeting. In the audience, there were men wearing suits, students, women, the types of people you could see anywhere."and to organize such symposium,the organizer must publicize that to some media,usually on daily paper's metropolitan section,of which(I presume)Tawara and his comrads are putting their eyes.

    Anyway,no liberal nor centrist Japanese with sane mind would ever think about using Kudan Kaikan,run by Japanese Association of the Family of War Deads.,for the place to hold objective historical symposium.That is guaranteed.

    Let's see and wait for this photos he've got.

  11. Tawara page's list started from March 24 of 1997.
    This,Another anti-Tsukurukai textbook activist starts from Jamuary 1st to Feburuary 12th..

    Still there's a blank five weeks from Feburary 13th to March 23rd......

  12. Sorry for occuopying with the off the topic issue,don.

    Whoa!,Jason.I've deleted the most crucial part on my first post.

    "I”s there any possibility whatsoever Kudan Kaikan told you there wasn’t an event when there in fact was?”

    Kudan Kaikan gave me the info on "Cavernous hall" since that is where all the symposiums are held including the one in 2007 and that's the only place with film projector in Kudan Kaikan,so I was told.
    And the answer was as I posted"No".
    However,there could be some small scale symposium held in "Banquet and Business rooms"of which I found out from their webpages later on.(I didn't bother to aske them for checking the record there,since they said the room is small for symposium and no facility of screening the film".But then again,"Nanking"could have been shown in video or something and I've attnded in a symposium held in far smaller public halls.Still,why would they choose Kudan Kaikan if not for the large and well equpped Carvenous Hall,when there are variety of alternatives of public halls in the center of Tokyo that are less associated with Japanese militarism)
    So I'm still skeptic for all the reasons I've sited above.